Monday, January 24, 2011

The Sprayer of Zürich

A few days ago I was in an a parking lot of the ETH (Federal Institute of Technology) in Zürich when I noticed some graffiti drawings on the walls.  I am far from being an expert, but they look to me like they must be originals from Harald Naegeli, the so called Sprayer of Zürich.

Is it a Naegeli original?

Between 1977 and 1979 Zürich became the home to around 900 works of art from a mysterious graffiti artist, who soon acquired the name "The Sprayer of Zürich".  The city authorities were appalled and eventually Harald Naegeli was identified as the criminal artist and apprehended.  Naegeli, however, fled the country, but was put on trial in absentia, found guilty of damaging private property and sentenced to nine months in prison and a fine of 206,000 CHF.

Naegeli's case became a cause celebre.  He found refuge in Germany where he was welcomed by leading artists like Joseph Beuys. Back home in Zürich 72 artists and writers called for a pardon.  But the city authorities demonstrated that an artist who damaged private property would receive far less forgiveness than millionaire tax-evaders (who are generally welcomed in the city, as long as it is foreign taxes that they are evading). After the Swiss had made repeated requests for extradition, Naegli gave himself over to Swiss police and served his term.

Since then times have changed. Most of Naegeli's public works have long been erased.  Some of those that remain are now protected.  One of the originals, "Undine" from 1978, was restored in 2005 at the costs of the Zürich tax-payer, graces a wall of the German Seminar at the University of Zürich and now has official protection status. A highlight of the recent official opening of an extension of the city zoo involved Naegeli making one of his creations in front of an invited audience that included the city president among the dignitaries. Naegeli's plans for his graffiti, drawn on paper, fetch 5,000 CHF or more.  His few pieces of graffiti that still adorn city walls have become a tourist attraction.

Undine by Harald Naegeli (Photo: D. Bachmann)

Naegeli, who is now 72 years old, still works, though rarely in public places. This weekend it was rumoured that a new graffiti of his had appeared near the steps leading up to the Grossmünster. Too late, by the time journalists and photographers got wind of it the drawing had already been erased by a worker from the sanitation department. If graffiti appears on a wall, he maintained, his job is to erase it, Unlike the legal authorities, his job is not to judge what is art.

Read more essays like this about Zurich in my ebook.


  1. Graffiti is one of the most fascinating and timeless forms of art.
    Modern society tends to ignore that street art has existed since time immemorial and is not only often very beautiful but is also a fabulous link between present and past.
    I am here referring to the century old graffiti carved by ordinary people on the walls of the narrow corridors leading into the pharaohs’ tombs, the graffiti made by Jean-Jacques Rousseau on one of the columns on Cap Sounion in Greece, or those carved on the walls of their jail in the Chateau de Chinon by the Knights Templar…the list goes on and on…

  2. It is a vexed issue, isn't it. The difference between public art and willful vandalism is hard to pinpoint, even now. I can imagine that in the 1970s, the authorities wanted to burden Harald Naegeli with a very harsh penalty, far out of proportion to the crime.

  3. Yes Hels, it is a difficult one. I would guess that Naegeli (and the city authorities) would not like to see a graffiti artist paint over any of Naegeli's works. As far as I know, most (or all) of his works were done in public spaces - he didn't deface, for instance, the side of somebody's home.

  4. Thanks for your comment DeeBee. What you say is very true. But, I don't think Rousseau ever went to Greece - are you sure you are not thinking of Byron? By the way, a piece of graffiti of Bryon's can also be found in Chateau de Chinon. Like the Mona Lisa, it is protected behind glass.

  5. Hi Paul,
    Thank you for taking the time of visiting my "work", leaving such positive comments and adding me to your list.
    It is very difficult to write "everything" about a specific topic, and I was thinking of mnetioning Robespierre or Rouget de l'Isle but that might be a bit too much for those who are not "too much into history". I try to find the balance, and I am always thrilled when I find someone else who "loves' history.
    Looking forward to reading your next articles, DeeBee

  6. About Rousseau: I know it seems odd, but I saw it when I visited (a while ago but my memory is still least so far...) and it made a huge impression on me! Will check for more details. DeeBee